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Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

Rome's first and largest circus (track for chariot races). It was 620 meters long and was built in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills. Here, according to tradition, Romulus staged the first horse races. The event was a ruse to enable the men of his new village to kidnap the young women of the neighboring Sabines (“the Rape of the Sabine Women”). For centuries, the circus was constructed of wood. The first stone version was built in the second century B.C. It was rebuilt and modified many times. By the high Empire, the racetrack could hold an estimated 150,000 spectators. The median strip was decorated with many monuments, including a fountain with seven bronze dolphins, seven enormous eggs used to indicate how many laps had been completed, and two Egyptian obelisks. There were turning-posts (metae) at each end. Set within the seating on the southern side was the Temple of the Sun and Moon. At the western end of the circus were the twelve starting gates; the eastern end featured an arch celebrating the triumph over Judaea by Vespasian and Titus.

Circus Maximus

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 114-120.

The first and largest circus in Rome, which was greatly built up in the Vallis Murcia (q.v.), between the Palatine and Aventine hills. This valley was admirably adapted for the purpose, being 600 metres long and 150 wide. Here the first recorded games were held (Ov. Ars Am. I.103-108; cf. Trist. II.283; Fast. II.391-392; IV.391, 680), horse races in honour of Consus (q.v.) ascribed to Romulus, at which occurred the rape of the Sabine women (Varro, LL VI.20; Plut. Rom. 14). To the Tarquins tradition ascribed the beginnings of the circus and the assignment of definite places or curiae to senate and knights where they could erect wooden platforms on supports (fori), from which to view the games, either to Priscus (Liv. I.35.8; Dionys. III.68.1) or Superbus (Liv. I.56.2; Dionys. IV.44.1; de vir. ill. 8; cf. Chron. 145), but the first definite statement is that of Livy for 329 B.C. (VIII.20.1: carceres eo anno in circo primum statuti), which makes it plain that there had been nothing permanent before that date. These carceres were probably of wood, for a century later they were painted (Enn. ap. Cic. de div. I.108: omnes avidi spectant ad carceris oras quam mox emittat pictis e faucibus currus). For further mention of the fori publici, see Liv. XXIX.37 (204 B.C.); CIL I2.809 (first century B.C.).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    66. The Fire of AD 64. Sources.


    At this time [AD 64] a disastrous fire occurred. Whether it was an accident or due to the treachery of Nero is not known (since writers have handed down both accounts), but it was clearly the most serious and destructive fire ever to ravage Rome. It began in the part of the Circus that borders on the Palatine and Caelian hills. Feeding on the highly flammable merchandise there, the fire grew rapidly. Whipped by the winds, it raced down the length of the Circus, encountering here none of the obstructions, such as walls that surround mansions and temple precincts, that might have delayed the flames. Spreading quickly, it charged across the level areas, then up the hills and back down again to destroy the lower spots, outstripping all preventive measures by its speed. The city was all the more vulnerable because of the narrow alleyways and the irregular, twisting blocks of buildings that characterized old Rome. … In addition, no one dared to fight the fire, since anyone making an attempt was subjected to repeated threats by many people; others were even openly throwing torches about, claiming they had the authority to do so (whether to plunder more freely, or because they were indeed under orders).

    When the fire started, Nero was in Antium and did not return to the city until the fire was nearing the palace he built to connect the Palatine Hill to the Gardens of Maecenas. The fire, however, could not be stopped before it consumed the Palatine, the palace, and everything around it. By way of relief for the people made homeless by the fire, Nero opened up to them the Campus Martius, the monuments of Agrippa, and even his own gardens [on the Vatican Hill], and erected temporary structures to house the large numbers of homeless. Food supplies were brought upstream from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces a peck. But all of these efforts, although popular in nature, won Nero no favor with the people, since the rumor had surfaced that while the city was still on fire he got up on his private stage and sang his poem “The Fall of Troy,” noting the correspondences between the present calamities and that ancient catastrophe.

    Finally on the sixth day the fire died out at the lower slopes of the Esquiline hill, where a wide swath of buildings had been purposefully demolished so the advancing inferno would come up against open field and empty sky. But before there was time for either fear to subside or hope to return, the fire broke out again and this time ravaged the more open quarters of the city, where the loss of life was smaller than in the first fire, but the destruction to temples and porticoed parks was even greater. This second blaze aroused more suspicion because it originated in the Aemilian estates [probably located in the Campus Martius just north of the Capitoline] of Nero's associate, Tigellinus, and because it seemed that Nero wanted to be famous for founding a new Rome named after himself.

    Of the fourteen regions into which Rome is divided, four of them remained untouched by the flames and three were completely leveled; in the remaining seven regions, scattered remnants of buildings still stood in burnt ruin.

    It would not be easy to list all the fine homes, apartment buildings, and temples which were destroyed by this fire. Among the losses were the some of the oldest sacred sites in Rome, including Servius Tullius's Temple of the Moon-Goddess, the large altar and shrine that Arcadian Evander consecrated to Hercules for his help, the Temple of Jupiter Stator vowed by Romulus, Numa's Regia, and the Temple of Vesta along with the Penates of the Roman people. Also lost were treasures gained in numerous victories, masterpieces of Greek art, and the old, original manuscripts of great writers. As a result, even though the city rose again in such great splendor, the older people remembered many losses which could never be made good.

    Some people noted that the fire began on July 19, the same date of the fire the Gauls once started when they sacked the city [in 390 BC]. Others went to the trouble of calculating that the interval between the two fires can be divided up into the same number of years, months, and days [454 years equaling 418 years, 418 months, and 418 days].

    Tacitus, Annals 15.38-41

    70. Colosseum (Amphitheatrum Flavii). Sources.


    The Emperor Alexander Severus [c. AD 230] placed a tax on pimps and both male and female prostitutes, with the stipulation that the income thus raised go not into the public treasury but towards the cost of restoring the Theater, the Circus, the Amphitheater, and the Stadium.

    Imperial Lives, Severus Alexander 24.3

    94. The Obelisks of Rome; Sundial of Augustus. Sources.


    The emperor Constantius was eager to visit Rome for the first time. [Entering the city, he was amazed by the concentration there of astounding buildings and monuments raised there by rulers before him.] He deliberated at length over what he might accomplish there; in the end he decided to add something beautiful to the appearance of the city, and had an obelisk erected in the Circus Maximus [in 357 AD].

    Ammianus, History 16.10.17

    128. Circus Maximus. Commentary.

    The Circus Maximus was the largest public structure in ancient Rome. Modern estimates of the Circus's seating capacity under the Empire (when the stands were at their largest) vary, going as high as Pliny's estimate of 250,000. By any account, the Circus could hold over twice the audience of the Colosseum, being not so much in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine, as a valley in itself with man-made slopes. The Circus is also uniquely and oddly preserved in the modern landscape, being less a ruin than open ground that is neither landscaped as a park like the Baths of Trajan, nor integrated into urban life as a piazza like the Stadium of Domitian (Piazza Navona). The extent of the Circus (it is fully twice as long as Piazza Navona) is certainly well conveyed by the clearing today, although the visible ruins of foundations at the curved, eastern end give little impression of the Circus's exterior architecture, which coins and carvings show resembled the arcade and pilaster arrangements of the Theater of Marcellus and the Colosseum.

    Varro [128.1] traces games at the Circus back to the legendary days of Romulus, Rome's king during the abduction of the Sabine women; Ovid perhaps has this in mind when he suggests the Circus as a place to pick up women [128.14]. Livy, on the other hand, ascribes the first proper racetrack and stands to the first Etruscan kings [128.2], and his emphasis on Etruscan origins is corroborated by early Etruscan art of ceremonial horse races.

    The Pulvinar, where the emperors often watched the game [128.12], was originally the shrine from which the gods, after being paraded into the arena in statuette-form, would watch the games from a special couch. It then took on architectural definition and became a sort of imperial box, while retaining its religious function. The passages that comment on emperors reading in the Pulvinar show how important imperial appearances at the games came to be in the crucial and uncertain business of relating to the populace of the city, and how a simple act of attention or inattention to the games, broadcast live from the Pulvinar in front of a massive audience, could define an emperor in popular image [128.12].

    The passages at the end of the section give some impression of the Circus's place in the life of the city and its inhabitants. The last two are inscriptions. The one describes an immensely successful charioteer's career that illustrates both the details of racing and the Roman passion for the races. The other is the epitaph of a young boy who may have hoped for such a career himself; it was found with the low-relief carving of a boy in a chariot holding a victory palm in his hand.

    128. Circus Maximus. Sources.


    The Consualian Games were named for the god Consus. It was during games to this god, being celebrated by the priests near his altar in the Circus, that the Sabine maidens attending the games were abducted.

    Varro, The Latin Language 6.20


    Tarquinius Priscus's first war was waged against the Latins…. Returning with more booty than reports of the war led people to expect, he put on games that were costlier and more elaborate than those of earlier kings. Then for the first time the ground was marked out for the racetrack which is now called the Circus Maximus. Separate spaces for viewing were designated for the patricians and the knights, on stands propped twelve feet off the ground on wooden braces. Horses and boxers, drawn primarily from Etruria, provided the entertainment. Subsequently, these games, which are called both the Roman Games and the Great Games, have been held regularly each year.

    Livy, History 1.35.7-9


    Tarquinius Priscus built the largest of the race-tracks, the one lying between the Aventine and Palatine hills, and was the first to erect covered seating there (until then the spectators had stood), which consisted of benches elevated on wooden scaffolding. He also divided the stands into thirty sections, one designated for each tribe, so that each person watched the games seated in his proper place.

    In time this structure was to grow into one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in Rome. The arena is 2,100 feet long and 400 feet wide. A trench for water, ten feet deep and ten feet wide, has been dug around it on the two longer sides and one of the shorter sides; behind this, stands of three stories are built. The ones at ground level have stone seats on a gradual incline, as in theaters; the upper stories are of wood. The stands extending down the two long sides of the track are joined together by stands that curve in a crescent around one of the short sides, in the manner of an amphitheater. This yields all told a seating area 4,800 feet long, with room for 150,000 spectators. The remaining short side, kept uncovered, has vaulted starting-gates which are all opened simultaneously by one rope.

    On the outer side of the Circus there is another portico, onestoried, containing shops with living-space above them. This portico also provides spectators access to the stands, with entrances and flights of stairs alongside each of the shops, such that the many thousands of spectators can enter and leave without inconvenience.

    Dionysius, Early Rome 3.68


    [Rome's monuments are beyond compare] even if we don't include among our great works of architecture the Circus Maximus built by Caesar when dictator, 1,800 feet long and 600 feet wide, with three acres of buildings and seats for 250,000 spectators ….

    Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia 36.102


    [In 329 BC] starting gates were first built in the Circus.

    Livy, History 8.20.2


    The censors [in 174 BC]… contracted for building starting gates at the Circus, and eggs for keeping track of the laps….

    Livy, History 41.27.6


    [As aedile in 33 BC] Agrippa, noticing that people in the Circus had trouble keeping track of the number of laps completed, installed the dolphins and egg-shaped objects to display the number of times the track had been circled in a race.

    Dio, History 49.43.2


    “Relax, you have arrived in time. The final egg, signifying the chariots are running the last lap in the Circus, has not yet been taken down.”

    Varro, Agriculture 1.2.11


    During festivities for the dedication of the Temple of Venus Victrix in Pompey's second consulship [55 BC], twenty elephants (some say seventeen) fought against African Gaetulians armed with javelins. One of the elephants put up an amazing fight. Unable to walk because its feet had been wounded, the elephant crawled on its knees toward the javelin-throwers and tossed their shields high in the air. To the delight of the spectators, these shields cut graceful arcs in the air on their way back down, as if thrown with artistry and not by an enraged beast. Another astonishing spectacle was an elephant who was killed with one throw of a javelin that plunged straight through its eye into the vital core of its brain.

    Banding together, the elephants attempted to break through the iron fencing that enclosed them, which caused such fear among the spectators that Caesar subsequently surrounded the arena with a canal prior to providing a similar show during his dictatorship [in 49 BC], a fence which was later removed by Nero to add seating reserved for the knights. Finally, when Pompey's elephants had given up all hope of escape, they appealed to the crowd's mercy with uncanny gestures, lamenting their fate with a sort of wailing. The people were so disturbed by this suffering that they forgot all about the great general and the magnificent entertainment he had arranged for their sake. In tears, they rose to their feet and called down curses on Pompey, which were soon enough fulfilled.

    Pliny the Elder, Encyclopedia 8.20-21


    The emperor Claudius refined the Circus Maximus, substituting marble starting-gates and gilded turning-posts for earlier work in tufa and wood. He also provided separate seating reserved for the Senators, who previously had to mix with the rest of the spectators.

    Suetonius, Claudius 21.3


    When the emperor Domitian celebrated the Secular Games, on the day reserved for the races in the Circus he reduced the number of laps for each race from seven to five in order to fit in a hundred races.

    Suetonius, Domitian 4.3


    Augustus himself generally watched the games from the upper dining rooms of his friends and freedmen, as on occasion from the Pulvinar, appearing there sometimes even with his wife and children.… Whenever he sat in the Pulvinar, he never occupied himself with other business, either to avoid the bad report that he knew had circulated about his father Caesar for utilizing time at the games for reading and replying to letters and petitions, or because Augustus genuinely enjoyed being a spectator, a pleasure he never denied and often openly professed.

    Suetonius, Augustus 45.1


    It was customary for the emperor Marcus Aurelius to read, hear reports, and sign documents while attending shows at the race-track—behavior which often, it is reported, made him the target of the people's ridicule.

    Imperial Lives, Marcus Aurelius 15.1


    [Epitaph:] Gaius Julius Epaphra, a fruit-seller in front of the Pulvinar at the Circus Maximus, sets this stone up for himself and his wife Venuleia Helena, a freedwoman of Caesar.

    ILS 7496 = CIL 6.9822


    In your search for a lover, don't neglect the noble race-track:

    The teeming stands of the Circus are rich with opportunity.

    Here no need for a code to signal secret thoughts,

    No need for a nod and a wink to get the message across;

    Just sit down next to your lady, there's nothing here to prevent it,

    Sidle yourself right up and press your hip to hers;

    The crowded seating, like it or not, works in your favor,

    And regulations compel you to squeeze in tight and touch.

    Next, a topic of conversation: begin with something

    Neighborly, delivered in public tones for all to hear.

    When horses appear, look excited and quickly ask whose,

    And whatever racer's her favorite, amazing ... he's yours as well!

    But when the parade is passing, with its host of ivory gods,

    Make sure your loud applause reveals your devotion to Venus.

    If any speck of dirt should land on the lap of your lady,

    As sometimes happens, be concerned to brush it away,

    And even if dirt is absent, brush it off anyway.

    Any service will do to show that you really care:

    If the folds of her robe should slip and touch the ground,

    Gently gather them up and rescue the fabric from filth:

    Such service comes with a quick reward: if the girl permits,

    Your new arrangement of cloth will give you a glimpse of her legs.

    Make sure to check behind you as well; with you on guard,

    No knee from the bench above will be jabbing her tender back!

    Ovid, The Art of Love 1.135-158


    Our city is already flooded with the foreign ways of the East:

    Even the man whose taste in women runs to hookers

    In turbans will find them stationed outside the Circus itself.

    Juvenal, Satires 3.62-6


    [Women, the poet rants, will plague you with their superstitions.]

    A woman of lesser means will head to the Circus and race

    Around the arcades to learn her future, offering her hand

    And cranial bumps to a prophet, clucking at the ominous news.

    Juvenal, Satires 6.582-4


    Powerful people are fools and don't know what to wish for.]

    But what about the crowd of common people? As always,

    They idolize success and save their contempt for losers.

    Ever since we lost the right to sell our votes

    The people toss their civic cares aside; the citizen

    Who once had final say over legions, the fasces, the world,

    Contracts himself to the issues of ultimate concern:

    Bread and Circuses.

    Juvenal, Satires 10.72-4, 77-81


    The Roman People are kept in line by two things above all: the grain dole and entertainment. Power rests no less upon amusements than upon serious measures: failure in the latter results in greater real damage, but failure at the former results in greater discontent.

    The grain dole is not as effective as entertainment in keeping the people content. Grain placates only a person at a time and is targeted to specific individuals; spectacles reach everyone.

    Fronto, Letters (Preamble to History, AD 165)


    [So much for the vices of the nobility.] We now [c. AD 360] come to the idle and shiftless plebs.… They spend their entire lives on wine, dice, brothels, parties, and the games. For such people, the Circus Maximus is a temple, a home, an assembly ground, and the focus of all desire.… As dawn approaches on the awaited day of chariot racing, before the sun is even shining, they all rush in a heedless mass to the stadium, as if engaged in a race with the very chariots they go to watch, many of them having gone sleepless with anxiety over the outcome of their fanatical wishes.

    Ammianus, History 28.4.28-31, selections


    Gaius Appuleius Diocles, driver for the Red Team, from Lusitanian Spain, [retired?] at age 42 years, 7 months, and 23 days. His first race was for the White Team in AD 122; his first victory was for the same team in AD 124. He first drove for the Greens in AD 128, and first won for the Reds in AD 131.

    His career statistics: he drove chariots for 24 years making 4,257 starts, with1,462 first place finishes, 110 of them in the opening race after the procession. In races for which he was his team's sole entry he came in first 1,064 times, 92 of them in the big-money events: he won 30,000 sesterces 32 times (three times with a six-horse team); 40,000 sesterces 28 times (twice with a six-horse team); 50,000 sesterces 29 times (once with a seven-horse team); and 60,000 sesterces three times. In double-entry contests he came in first 347 times, winning 15,000 sesterces four times with a three-horse team. In three-entry races he came in first 51 times.

    He came in first or placed 2,900 times, coming in second 861 times, third 576 times and fourth once (winning 1,000 sesterces); he failed to place 1,351 times.… His career winnings totaled 35,863,120 sesterces.… He held a lead to win 815 times, came from behind to win 67 times, won under handicap 36 times, won in various fashion 42 times, and took the lead down the stretch to win 502 times (overtaking the Greens 216 times, the Blues 205 times, and the Whites 81 times). He made nine horses 100-time winners, and one horse a 200-time winner.

    ILS 5287 = CIL 6.10048, selections


    Here I lie, the little Florus, a two-horse charioteer; No sooner did I take to chariots than I tumbled to the shades.

    ILS 5300 = CIL 6.10078

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